A 3-Person Relationship with an Eating Disorder
In this weeks blog, we sat down with Zoe & James Burnett to discuss their experience of Zoe's eating disorder and how it impacted their relationship.
Q: How did the eating disorder impact your relationship?
Z: It felt like there was a third person in our relationship, constantly whispering in my ear, trying to tear us apart. Whispering things like 'he will leave anyway', 'you are not good enough for him', and 'he deserves better'. Luckily for me, James never let that "third" person rule and would reassure me regularly that he loved me, he was not going anywhere, and we can do this, together.
J: However, it did impact our life as a couple. Zoe became very distant and instead of doing things as a couple, Zoe was always at the gym so I never really saw her. We had built this home together and were married but I never actually got to spend time with my wife. When we did see each other all the conversations would be about food, or me worrying about her. The fun vanished and it was quite stressful.
Z: I would also find it hard to be intimate. If we were walking down the street holding hands, I would be flooded with thoughts like 'everyone can see you are well out of your league' and 'everyone is judging you'. I struggled to even hold my husband's hand.
Q: How did you work together to support Zoe’s recovery from her eating disorder?
J: I would ALWAYS recommend going to get support yourself. First Steps run a skills for carers course which is similar to what I had. I worked closely with a team who taught me ways to manage distress around the table. They really helped me realise and remind me that I was human too and that there is no magic fix. But at the same time, there were little ways and things I could do to nudge Zoe in the right direction. The best thing I found was to not force her to eat, but to role model the kind of relationship with food we were aiming for, and encourage her in the right direction. I would also be quite blunt at times and call out her ED, saying things like "is that ED saying you do not want this, or you?" Yes at times she found this infuriating but other times you could see her stopping and thinking. Sometimes that pause is all that's needed. She did try to push me away, so many times, but I was not going anywhere. We were working against each other for a long time, but when she started telling me about the ED thoughts, it helped me to see the illness for what it was. I didn't always understand, but I could listen, and provide comfort and encouragement. I think that's all that's needed sometimes, someone to listen and try to understand, rather than getting angry or frustrated.
Z: What he said! Joking aside, you were fab. The Maudsley method worked well for us, yes at times we both became rhinos (trying to use force and confrontation to win an argument due to stress and frustration), and you may have said the wrong thing a few times but a lot of the time that's just the eating disorder trying to build a gap between people. You are human and no one can get it right all the time, especially for something as complex as an eating disorder. Learning together and being open about what worked and what didn't work really helped. As cheesy as it sounds, communication is the key.
Z: Also, carers and loved ones, you deserve support too! James needed his own counselling and help as this was a lot for anyone to deal with. He also needed someone to talk to and confide in when things were a bit heated and ED had full power. Often just going out with a mate or talking to a professional really helps because it let's you get out your frustrations and talk about things going on with you. Life doesn't stop when an eating disorder is around, and we all have our own demons to battle too.
Q: How did you help Zoe to see the person you loved, rather than the person her eating disorder was making her hate?
J: I would send pictures that popped up on my memories of things we had done in the past, like ice skating or a holiday. I would also try and remind her who she was as a person rather than about her body such as "I like your humour or it is good to see you being playful." Aspects of her personality, not her weight. Most of the time to be fair she ignored me or said "whatever you are lying" but no matter how many times she pushed the compliments aside, I would still keep saying them. I would also say things like "I love you, I don't like what the eating disorder is doing to you and us, but I still love you" to try and separate the two of them as it was really important for me and Zoe to remember that she wasn't the eating disorder. I knew some of the things she was saying were due to the illness and some things she would never say, reminding her she was still loved was crucial.
Q: How has recovery changed your relationship?
J: Our relationship is better than ever. We communicate a lot better and are so much more open about our thoughts and feelings. We can be honest with each other and it has helped us be more empathic towards one another. It has also improved our sense of adventure as we have both realised how short life can be, Zoe came close to death now we both feel so alive. We want to live life fully, together.
Q: What would your top tip be for someone supporting their partner in recovery?
Z: Please seek support too. Like First Steps ED support for carers or in our case our local trust had an ED carers group. Somewhere to learn more about what is going on with your loved one, ways to manage those feelings and also ways to look after yourself too. Self-care is key for carers as watching someone you love dearly self-destruct can be soul-destroying. Remember it's okay to make mistakes and there is no magic wand. Your loved one is still there, they may be trying to push you away, but remind them of times together, funny memories, and reasons they make you smile. Try and do things away from food as a couple. It is so easy for all the conversations to be taken over by the third person in the relationship, even if it is just snuggled under a blanket watching a cheesy film or even playing a game. Find time for just the two of you to be together.
Q: My therapist said to me the other day “when someone sticks around through something as hard as an eating disorder, the other person must be really special”, how do you feel about that?
J: She is pretty special
Z: What have you broken?! (both laugh).
J: I did 'stick around' I loved and still do love her. At times I did not know if recovery would be possible, it was a hard journey, but I always hoped. I always hoped she could recover and I wanted to help and support her in anyway that I could.
To find out more about Zoe, you can follow her and her incredible work on Instagram @barefootrebel1. You can also find out more about the carers groups at FSED that Zoe mentioned here: https://firststepsed.co.uk/services-and-support/support-for-carers/